The Tribe of Levi

Holiness & power.

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Among Parashat Mishpatim's many ethical ordinances is the provision for a refuge to shelter murderers from those seeking vendetta justice (Exodus 21:13). While similar havens are explored in later discussions of arei miklat--biblical Israel's ''cities of refuge''--the asylum referenced here is specifically for the desert generation, for whom Rashi teaches, God designated ''the encampment of the Levites'' as sanctuary for the pursued.

As those set aside for divine service, the Levites seem an appropriate choice. Because of their service to the priests and the proximity of their tents to the Tabernacle, the Levite's camp was suffused with holiness. The priests, moreover, were themselves Levites. Revenge-killing in such a hallowed arena would have been--if not anathema--then seriously worrying to the Israelites, who well understood the taboos against killing before God's altar. That the tribe of Levi would offer a ''sanctuary''--both ritual and protective--accords well with their separate, holy status.

Levite Association with Violence

But there's a snag in this gloss: At this point in the narrative, the priestly consecration and the tribe of Levi's holy charge are still many parshiot away (Numbers 18:2-4, 6). Having yet to be vested with the ritual service, the Levites are instead most conspicuously associated with the violent patrimony of their namesake, Levi son of Jacob. So shaken was Jacob by Levi's massacre of Shehem that the patriarch branded his son in a deathbed lament: ''[I]n their fury they slaughtered men…. Cursed be their fury so fierce, and their wrath so remorseless.'' (Genesis 49:6-7).

Through the period of Israel's desert sojourn, Levi's progeny continued its association with violence. It is the Levites who respond to Moses call to slay worshippers of the golden calf (Exodus 32:26-29). And the Torah singles out two Levites--Pinhas and Moses--for their demonstration of ''homicidal zealotry'' in defense of the just or holy (Exodus 2:11-15, Numbers 25:6-13).

What are we to make then of the designation of the Levite camp as site of the wilderness asylum? Why choose those marked by violence to provide shelter from it?

Perhaps the Levites were chosen precisely because they straddled holiness and violence, purity and power. The desert Israelites were a nascent nation, newly vested with the ethical imperatives that would ultimately form the backbone of their civil society. But wandering and lost, they were also desperate and insecure--an existence radically unsuited to suffer the protection of fugitives. It would thus be the Levites' ferocity--and not a devout respect for their holiness--that would most effectively ensure a safe haven.

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Rachel Farbiarz

Rachel Farbiarz is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law. Rachel worked as a clerk for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, after which she practiced law focusing on the civil rights and humane treatment of prisoners.